June 2000/July 2000
Marty Prast: A Remarkable Life
By Jim Doyle
Marty Prast, who died two years ago, lived an exceptional life.
His family came to this country after World War II from Germany, where
his father worked with the famed rocket scientist Werner Von Braun. Marty
held dual citizenship and didn't have to worry about the draft. He was
traveling in Europe when his mother told him that his draft notice had
arrived, and she reminded him that he didn't have to report. But Prast
returned to the States and reported for duty. He told his mother that this
was their country now and he had a duty to serve.
Prast completed basic and advanced training and was shipped to Vietnam
where the Army learned he had been to college. He was sent back home where
he completed Officer Candidate School. He then joined Special Forces and
returned to Vietnam.
Prast served with the Fifth Infantry Division in Vietnam. He was
wounded in action three times. On January 30, 1970, Prast was severely
wounded when a booby trap blew up in his chest. Even so, he crawled back
to his platoon to insure the safety of his men. He was thrown on a supply
helicopter and evacuated to a field hospital. There the medical staff
determined in triage that Prast was beyond saving. He was left on a
Both lungs had collapsed and shrapnel wounds pierced his heart. One arm
was dislocated. It didn't look good for 1st Lieutenant Marty
After completing surgery on other wounded soldiers, medical personnel
saw that--despite the odds--Prast was still very much alive. The doctors
decided to amputate his badly mangled and dislocated arm. When he heard
the news, Prast pulled out his sidearm and said, "Put it back
in." Then he passed out.
Marty Prast survived, but was left a paraplegic. That situation didn't
diminish his will to live.
He came home to Grand Island, New York, with three Purple Hearts, the
Combat Infantryman Badge, the Army Commendation Service Medal, the
National Defense Medal, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. He
completed college. Prast got involved with the Vietnam Veterans Leadership
In 1987 he was elected Grand Island Supervisor. His administration
oversaw the development of Veterans Park, a system of bike paths, and a
new library. The environment and handicap accessibility also were
With his father, Prast established a research foundation to develop and
provide prosthetic devices for veterans. They invented the Paco Brace, a
crutchless device that allowed paralyzed individuals to stand and walk.
Prast was an avid hydroplane racer before he entered the military.
After returning from Vietnam and while recuperating from his wounds, he
formed the Blind, Crippled, and Crazy Racing Club in Grand Island.
He is the only known paraplegic to parachute into the Niagara River.
After signing a stack of waivers and releases, Prast strapped himself into
a parachute and leapt out of a small plane as part of a ceremony opening
the hydroplane races. He chose the river as a drop zone because it
provided a softer landing than dry land.
Prast had his leg amputated due to gangrene in 1997. It didn't slow him
down or dim the light in his eyes. He had gym rings installed in the
rafters of his garage so he could swing himself up and onto the deck of
his boat where he would work for hours.
Every Christmas, Prast and his wife adopted a local family and bought
them clothes, toys, and other holiday goods. Even when the Prasts were
having hard times, they donated to those in need during the holidays.
In late January 1998, a chaplain called longtime VVA member Frank
Vollmer and told him that Marty, who was in the hospital, was asking for
him. He had been given the last rites. He told Vollmer he couldn't fight
anymore. When he said he wanted a military funeral, Vollmer assured him
that his wish would be fulfilled.
In snow two feet deep with temperatures in the low teens, Martin Thomas
Prast was laid to rest. It was so cold that day that the rifles froze. Yet
Prast's friends and fellow veterans stood tall and paid their final
respects to their friend.
Marty Prast made many friends during his lifetime. One of them refused
to let Prast die without some recognition of the circumstances that caused
He appealed to the Department of Defense, telling them Marty's story.
Although Prast died 28 years after being wounded, the Defense Department
was persuaded to classify him as a casualty of the war. On Memorial Day
1999, the name "Martin Thomas Prast" was added to the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial in Washington.
His name is on Panel 8W, Line 65. He was a remarkable man who might
have elected not to serve, but chose instead to step forward and answer
the call to duty.